PBS’s Washington Week host and managing editor Gwen Hill posed that question at an August 10 panel discussion titled “What Does It Mean to be a Black Man?”
Perhaps no segment of the American population has been more analyzed than Black males. They have been the subject of dozens of academic studies and government boards and commissions. Negative images of Black men over the years have often been planted in the public mind in various forms and fashions.
Lately, Black men have been variously depicted as the progenitors of pop culture and the menaces of society. Given all this attention, is it a good time to be a Black man today? PBS’s Washington Week host and managing editor Gwen Hill posed that question at an August 10 panel discussion titled “What Does It Mean to be a Black Man?” during the recent National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) annual convention in Las Vegas.
The panel featured three Black men: Hill Harper, actor and star of CBS’s CSI: NY, FBI Executive Assistant Director Mike Mason, and Washington Post associate editor Kevin Merida. Washingtonpost.com Investigative Projects Editor Tanya Ballard was the female panelist.
Too many young Black males today believe that material things make them important, said Harper. “[Black men] are aspiring for things, thinking that if you have them, they will make you whole,” he explained. “We come out of a culture where ambitions and a Black man’s self-worth oftentimes are linked to the size of the rims on his car, platinum Rolex…all the way down to his sperm.”
When Black men get into trouble, they often blame everyone but themselves, added Mason, who also works with Black male prisoners. “I often remind them that they were here not because of the FBI but because of what they did, and I want to make sure that they have a full understanding of that.”
Merida and Ballard were among 24 reporters, photographers and editors involved with the series of in-depth articles the Washington Post published between June and December 2006, each one focused on Black men. The collected articles were recently published as Being a Black Man (PublicAffairs Books).
A Post reporter first proposed this project in 2000, Merida recalled. “It wasn’t so much that it was shelved; it just never got off the ground. I think the reason why it didn’t get off the ground was that many of us that were involved were fragmented and had different assignments.”
Later, in the summer of 2005, while he and Post reporter Daryl Fears were discussing over lunch how the Post would commemorate the Million Man March’s 10th anniversary, the project idea came up again. “The success this time is that we did a lot of brainstorming and a lot of thinking about it even before we brought it to the newspaper,” said Merida.
The series was carefully planned, said Merida, who served as lead editor. It also featured on-line discussions and a nationwide poll that opened up new questions of race and Black male identity. “We had a high threshold in what we wanted to do,” he pointed out.
Ballard, who coordinated the on-line discussions, said of one in which Black women talked about Black men, “It was really positive.”
Mason, the FBI’s fourth-ranking officer, was also the subject of “Special Agent,” a chapter in Being a Black Man. It begins with his “arrest” while was doing undercover work in a shopping mall. “There was a moment when I wanted to stand up and say this is not who I am,” he recalled, “because that would frame forever for a lot of those shoppers [at the mall witnessing his ‘arrest’] what it means to be a Black man.”
Merida wrote “In or Out of the Game?” about Anthony “A.J.” Jones. “It explains thug life, its attraction and the lure of Black men who pursue the criminal [life],” he said, adding that it was not a typical “Black man doing wrong” story. “We gave that humanity as we tried to explain it.”
“Most of the stories were narratives,” said Merida. “It is really showing Black men in a lot of different ways and different platforms.”
Being a Black man was also discussed last week at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in North Minneapolis, where college instructor Ezia Hyland has led a weekly reading group with local Black men for three years.
“The reason why it is so hard to be a Black man today is because we really don’t understand how hard it was to be a Black man before today,” Hyland explained.
“The proudest day I’ve had was when I was at work watching the Million Man March on TV [in 1995], to see all those brothers come together,” said group member and local activist Brother Kwasi proudly, quickly adding that being a Black man in today’s society isn’t easy.
“Black men have to contend with disrespect 24/7, 365 [days a year],” he noted. “We have to deal or contend with disrespect not only from the dominant culture, but everybody else who believe these lies that are perpetrated by the media about us.”
Tony Parrish, 35, of North Minneapolis, had his three girls with him, ages six, seven and 10. “I want to put on a better image for my daughters,” he said. “Being a single father to my daughters is for me also learning how to respect Black women.”
Don H. of Minneapolis said he wants to be a living example for his son: “I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to jail for anybody.”
Growing up, John Carter of Minneapolis wished his dad was around more. This, he believed, affected his belief of what a Black man should be like. “He provided me with a good education and a good home. But I was looking for someone to fulfill me spiritually,” Carter said.
“I needed to know from him how to live with a Black woman, to tell me what mistakes [he] made so I wouldn’t make them. I needed his insight into life and living.”
“Growing up being a Black kid is hard [today] because most kids look up to 50 Cent,” said 13-year-old Donald Hooker, Jr. of Minneapolis.
Hyland said too many Black men worry too much. “We go to bed at night worrying about what White people are going to do; we have nightmares and wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about what White people are going to do. We wake up in the morning worrying about what White people are going to do. Then we sit paralyzed all day, waiting for White people to do something.”
“The best thing we can do is to give back to our younger brothers and sisters, be they our biological sons or someone else’s sons and daughters, to make sure our community family becomes strong,” Brother Kwasi believes.
“We as Black men have to develop a language to deal with our emotional world,” concluded Hyland. “We have to come up with new languages and new expressions.”
The only possible conclusion about the current state of being a Black man, based on the NABJ panel discussion and last week’s Black Men Reading group, is that Black men are deeply divided in the ways they see each other — just as this country is divided in the ways it sees them.
The entire Washington Post series, which includes video documentaries, can be seen on www.washingtonpost.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.